So how do you spell element 16?

IUPAC says sulfur, and what they say goes

IUPAC says sulfur, and what they say goes

I found myself yet again discussing the correct spelling of the name of element number 16 today with a group of students. Now, on the one hand, going over this again and again is a tad wearisome. On the other, I’m quietly glad that in a time in which the media constantly blather on about terrible literacy levels, rant about the use of txt spk and generally mutter under their (or there/theyre/one of those) breath about the inability of the nation to use an apostrophe properly, I can consistently find an entire roomful of youngsters who care so much about spelling that they’re willing to argue over the correct use of ‘f’ vs. ‘ph’.

I am, of course, talking about sulfur.

You will note that I have spelled it with an ‘f’.  I should point out that the spelling chequer* on my browser has just underlined that with a row of red dots. It disagrees with me as well.

However, IUPAC (The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry – sounds like a fun place for a holiday doesn’t it?) do not, and in this they get the deciding vote. One of the many things IUPAC does is to sort out the official nomenclature of organic and inorganic molecules.

Of course, chemistry professors have been cheerfully ignoring them for years, and so it is that generations of chemistry students have tripped gaily into their first university session, fresh from A-level teachers using systematic names, to be immediately and thoroughly bamboozled by a lecturer talking about acetone, neopentane, para-nitrophenol and the gloriously-named glacial acetic acid.

But there it is, when it comes to element 16, IUPAC are crystal clear. It’s sulfur. With an f. That means it’s also sulfide with an f, and sulfate, with an f. Oh and sulfuric, as in the acid, with an f. Interestingly Richard Osman, on the BBC quiz show Pointless, has been very keen to point out in elements rounds that it’s sulfur, and then in a round about acids spelled it sulphuric. Weird.

In their notes, IUPAC even say that ‘”aluminum” and “cesium” are commonly used alternative spellings for “aluminium” and “caesium.”’ No such note is made for sulfur. Time to get over it.

Volcanic sulfur - it looks prettier than it smells.

Volcanic sulfur – it looks prettier than it smells.

If the Online Etymology Dictionary is to be believed, the ph/f thing has gone backwards and forwards a few times. It was apparently sulphur in Latin, and sulfur in Late Latin. There was an Old English word ‘swefl’ meaning sulfur or brimstone (same thing really, just with more religious connotations), and an Old French one: ‘soufre‘. Actually, according to Google Translate, that’s the modern French spelling as well. I am pretty clueless when it comes to French, so feel free to correct me.

The UK started spelling the word with a ph in around the 14th century, along with several other words that have since fallen out of use, such as phantastic and turph. The ph makes some sense in words with a Greek origin, such as philosophy and orphan, since the Greek alphabet actually has the letter phi, but little sense otherwise. However the scribes of the time believed that the more letters there were in a word the more impressive it would look, so they made everything as long and complicated as possible. Why use f when you can use ph? Why spell it ‘tho’ when you can write ‘though’? And you also have them to blame for all those annoyingly unnecessary double consonants that turn up far from occasionally (I absolutely never get that one right first time).

If we’re honest, this belief still persists to some extent. True we don’t throw extra letters in for good measure any more, but there are plenty of sesquipedalianist writers out there who believe such behaviour makes them look intelligent (see what I did there?) And just look at how annoyed people get about text speak, or how many quietly sneer about tweeting.

So back to element 16. Chuck in a few more centuries and we come, more or less, full circle. IUPAC adopted the spelling sulfur in 1990, and the Royal Society of Chemistry Nomenclature Committee followed suit in 1992. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for England and Wales switched in 2000, and it’s now the spelling you will see in both GCSE and A-level examinations and, consequently, the one in any text book published within the last decade. For those that complain it’s an American spelling, even The Oxford Dictionaries admit that “In chemistry… the -f- spelling is now the standard form in all related words in the field in both British and US contexts.”

So it’s sulfur. With an f. It’s not “the American spelling”. Well, ok, it IS, but it’s also the British spelling. And the rest of the world’s spelling. So add sulfur to your spell checker’s dictionary and let’s move along.


* this is a joke. Probably not a very good one, since a number of people have pointed out my ‘mistake’. It’s never a good sign if you have to explain your attempts at humour is it? Anyway, it’s a reference to this famous (well I thought it was, anyway) poem.

22 thoughts on “So how do you spell element 16?

  1. I was actually in my PhD when the adoption of sulfur to sulphur came about. So i remember it well, and recall several mutterings to the effect that we were letting the Americans tell us how to spell things. But we moved on and now I don’t even think about it.

    Interestingly, when I spelled sulfur and sulphur there, it was sulphur that had the little red lines under it.


  2. I prefer to use the “G-H” combination (as in cough and laugh) and I spell it “sulgher.”


  3. I ignore the blogosphere for a while and then pop back, check this page and suddenly remember why I loved blogging in the first place. Great article, made me chuckle.


  4. It’ll always be Sulphur, until they start spelling philosophy as filosofy.


    • Well, no, because the pH in ‘sulphur’ was from Latin. Whereas the ph in philosophy is from the Greek ‘philosophia‘. There is/was no Greek origin for sulphur/sulfur. So they’re not the same thing at all.


  5. “But there it is, when it comes to element 16, IUPAC are crystal clear. It’s sulfur. With an f. That means it’s also sufide with an f, and sufate, with an f.”

    Shouldn’t that be sulfide and sulfate? 😛


    • Excellent article, btw! People’s reactions to text speak are amusing. I’m quite verbose, but I like, well, conveying information as efficiently as possible when urgent, and text speak makes that easy… and that switch confuses people, for some reason. They expect me to write essays when I just have to tell someone where I’m located. I understand how in some situations, text speak seems rude, but otherwise it’s useful and necessary.


  6. Upon reading the argumentation provided here in favour of “sulfur”, I have to conclude your point is rather moot and illogical, no offence intended. If as you say, “sulfur” is the correct spelling why then did “sulphur” vastly predominate when spelling began to settle circa 1600? Have a look at the Oxford English Dictionary, the main historical dictionary of the English language. Only a small minority of the OED quotes from the 14th. to the 18th. century use anything like the “sulfur” spelling.

    The online etymology dictionary you quoted even admits that “sulphur” was the original spelling in Latin, and “sulfur” was a later spelling reform. The English people have decided “sulphur” is the correct term to be used for centuries, regardless of its roots. The Americans themselves were similarly using “sulphur” far more frequently, and this only changed in the early 20th. century. Far more plausibly, this the work of a reformer like Webster.

    The IUPAC, clearly biased towards the Americans (their administrative office is situated there despite purporting to be “registered” in Switzerland) then rejected the British spelling in favour of the American word. They do recognise the American spellings of “aluminum” and “cesium”, but not “sulphur” despite the word having been used for many centuries and being far more frequent than the alternative. What does that tell you as to where their loyalties lie? Their opinion is therefore worthless to anyone who doesn’t wish to kowtow to foreigners telling the English how to spell their language.

    So that leaves the RSC, who arbitrarily decided to enforce this change in spelling without at least putting it to a vote amongst their members, knowing full well it will never come to pass. I’ll be gentle and assume the RSC is simply recommending a style guide to be used in journals for British chemists, and that the far more frequent spelling wouldn’t be marked down or rejected. Tell me, do you spell colour “color”? Because if the only basis for the change in spelling is that the word doesn’t originate from Greek, then perhaps it’s long past time to drop the ‘u’ in “colour”, which according to etymology originated from the Latin and French “color”. How about “labour”? That similarly originated from the Latin “labor”. A metric tonne of words would require spelling changes if we’re going to toe the original language as opposed to how we as a society decided English should be written. This is heavily flawed logic.

    Here’s a thread discussing this on an English grammar forum:

    I particularly like Ewie’s response.

    And another one on the RSC’s forum pointing out their short-sightedness:

    And if that’s not enough, a Google search for “sulfur” pulls up 34,100000 results ( and a Google search for “sulphur” pulls up 34,600000 results ( Despite all the sanctioning, “sulphur” still predominates on Google, and really is the closest to “correct”, if we’re going to designate one of them as such. It has both history and common usage to back it up.


    • Yes, I realise lots of people disagree. But that’s not the point. IUPAC is the international body that decides these things, and they say sulfur. So sulfur it is. It’s time to Let It Go.

      As for bias, well, IUPAC have to be based somewhere. They haven’t insisted on aluminum, yet, have they.


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